The “New” Testament’s Novelty

The New Testament is a product of the Christian Church. The first Christians did not have a New Testament, nor does the New Testament itself depict any disciple, apostle or lay believer writing any new Christian scripture. The New Testament, then, is concretly a church document,  written mostly in post-Apostolic times and selected and canonized much later.

Once the Church had condensed and preserved its new sacred documents from a much vaster body of literature,  Christian interpretation of these new texts began. These interpretations varied according to the differing theologies, christologies and soteriologies of the exegetes that were doing the interpreting.

The Hellenistic “Church Fathers” supplied their own interpretations and commentaries, as did itinerant teachers, holy hermits, saints… until the monarchical episcopate – the network of bishops – assayed to set its own interpretations as final and universally binding. But since these importantly historically-positioned clergymen did not agree among themselves about interpretation (or christology) – and thus were keeping the Empire spiritually divided –  ultimately the emperor Constantine put an end to their frenetic squabbling by forcing them to hammer out binding doctrines in a series of “committee meetings” (the Church Councils).

So the Protestant-ish suggestion that Jesus, returning today, would obviously ally himself most closely with any church that teaches the biblical truth about him is not very helpful, since all churches, past and present, claim to teach exactly that truth. Nor can a solution be derived simply by a  devout, prayerful reading of the New Testament, since that very document is the Church’s product, and reading of it ought to be informed relative to the Church’s motivations, as far as those can be reconstructed. This methodology flows naturally from the critical biblical principle which insists that all scriptures must be read informed by the probable conflicts, biases, and social realities of the communities that originally birthed those texts.

The significant fact here is that the New Testament did not create the Church; rather, the Church produced the New Testament. The solution, if any, is to be found in a critical analysis of the New Testament and a careful, attentive reading of the New Testament period, from Maccabean times, through the fall of the second Temple, to the accession of Theodosius to the imperial throne.

In the Church’s infancy – especially during its earliest  Jewish-sectarian and early “Pauline” period – many differing views of Jesus existed, and only after much political ferment did a  “New,” specifically Christian scripture, emerge as a second “word of God”.  Prior to that time, the Church’s only scriptural text  was the Jewish Torah and the Prophets. This early situation was far removed from the Protestant-fundamentalist stereotype of an original Church guided sola sciptura by a specifically Christian scripture:  that very early Church would not produce and sanction its  “new scripture” for many years after the death of the last Apostle.  Until that time, Jewish scripture sufficed for Jews and for Jesus and his Jewish and Gentile followers.

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